The Highest Paid Judges in Rhode Island
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Most of the 30 highest-earning state judges earn between $165,000 and nearly $200,000 annually, with benefits adding about another $15,000 to their compensation. The list includes almost all Supreme Court justices and many of those on Superior Court as well as some justices and magistrates from courts that handle family issues, workers compensation, and traffic-related matters. (See the below slides for the complete list.)
Rhode Island judges are among the highest paid judges in the country. The justices on the Supreme Court are the 14th most compensated in the nation while those on Superior Court rank 13th, according to the January 2013 national survey of judicial salaries published by the National Center for State Courts. Superior Court justices in this state drop to the 33nd spot when cost of living is taken into account, yet they remain the highest paid among the six New England states, the survey shows.
Flanders: judicial pay is lower than it should be
Yet many in the legal profession argue that, as a general rule, judges do not earn enough.
“Generally, judicial salaries are lower than they should be to attract the best and the brightest,” said Bob Flanders, a former associate justice of the state Supreme Court who is now an attorney with Hinckley Allen. Flanders said salaries cannot be so prohibitively low that they cannot attract legal professionals whose earnings at a private law firm could be many times that of their salaries as judges.
Craven said he came to appreciate just how dramatic the pay disparity is during an exchange with a Superior Court judge when he was a prosecutor in the 1980s. Craven recalled that he had raised an objection over the admissibility of evidence and the judge had ruled against him. When Craven said he disagreed with the decision, the judge responded, “What do you expect for $56,500 a year, Felix Frankfurter?” (Frankfurter served on the U.S. Supreme Court in the mid-twentieth century.)
The judge, whom he declined to name, has long since retired, Craven said.
But pay has become such an issue that the legal profession has seen a national trend of judges leaving the bench, according to Flanders.
Flanders himself said low pay was one factor—among many—that led him to leave the state’s highest court in 2004, after serving for eight and a half years. Flanders said that when he had first joined the court, his pay was a fifth of what it had been in the private sector. “That’s a hard pillow to swallow,” Flanders said. For judges who face college tuition bills for their children and other major expenses it’s too much, according to Flanders.
(Flanders noted that his decision was motivated by other factors as well, such as frustrations over being a frequent dissenter in cases and a desire to do other forms of public service, which he later did as state education board chair and the Central Falls receiver.)
“A judge plays an incredibly important role and affects people’s lives in ways that perhaps no other public official does,” Flanders said.
Rhode Island v. Massachusetts
The difference between pay for judges in New England is significant. In Massachusetts, a typical Superior Court justice earned $129,694 as of January 2013, ranking 49th in the nation overall when cost of living was factored in. A Rhode Island Superior Court justice, on the other hand, was earning about 15 percent more—or $149,207—at the same time, ranking 33nd nationally with cost of living factored in, according to the National Center for State Courts.
But Rhode Island justices are not earning too much, according to a spokesman for the state judiciary. Instead, he said their Massachusetts colleagues have been earning too little.
“A 2008 Massachusetts Compensation Review Panel to the Massachusetts Legislature found that the existing judicial salary levels in Massachusetts were woefully low for the region. Just last year the legislature there increased the salary level of their Supreme Judicial Court justices and Trial Court judges by $30,000 annually,” said the spokesman, Craig Berke.
Those raises have yet to kick in in any national rankings. The first installment of $15,000 will be made on January 1, 2014. The next will come six month later, according to Berke.
“The Judiciary now, and the General Assembly before separation of powers in 2004, decided on behalf of our citizens that the state wants to attract well-qualified, experienced candidates to the bench. If we want educated, experienced, responsible jurists making decisions that can have enormous impact on people’s lives, we need to compensate them fairly and make it worthwhile to leave what for some was a lucrative law practice,” Berke said. (He noted that salaries are set by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, in accordance with Rhode Island General Laws 8-15-4.)
“When looking at compensation for judges, you also need to put the profession in perspective. Our judges, on average, are about 47 years old and have been practicing law for about 20 years when they come on the bench. The average age of the three newest judges this year is 59.7,” Berke added.
Taxpayers group says judicial salaries too high
Berke said cost of living is a “significant” factor when comparing judicial compensation across the nation, noting that Rhode Island Superior Court justices rank 33nd when that factor is figured into the rankings. Even in New England, he said the disparities in cost of living make fair comparisons difficult. The fairest comparisons, he said, would be with Connecticut and Massachusetts. (Rhode Island justices still rank higher than their peers in both states.)
But a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Taxpayers cautioned against focusing too much on differences in cost of living.
She said other factors should be considered when determining the pay for judges. She asked whether it might be “more prudent and equitable” to consider how much compensation can be supported by local private-sector incomes.
“Stated more baldly, affordability must be taken into account when setting public sector compensation. It is not at all clear that our elected officials have done so, as reflected by state and local budgets that seem too often to be in the red and public pay rankings … near the top of the national scale,” Chartier said.
Judicial benefits raise union ire
In recent years, judicial benefits, rather than salaries, have stirred controversy. At one time, judges were eligible to receive 100 percent of their final pay in retirement (at least a handful of older judges were still due for full pension in late 2011). In the past, some judges did not have to contribute to their pensions either. Craven and Berke said the pension benefits have historically been offered to offset the lower salaries judges earn.
“In the past decade, that benefit package has been significantly reduced by the legislature,” Berke said.
“I have a problem with them and other people being carved out of the alleged pension reform,” said Phil Keefe, president of SEIU Local 580. “When they treat those people differently than my people I think it’s discriminatory and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
The pension reform law exempted judges from having to participate in the new hybrid plan that combines elements of the traditional pension with 401(k)-style retirement accounts. It also instituted a different method for calculating when cost of living adjustments are returned to judges.
Keefe added that he did not necessarily believe that judicial compensation is too high—or too low. Instead, the issue is one of fairness. “We are all state employees. We should all be treated the same,” Keefe said.
The pension reform law also increased the amount judges contribute towards their pensions, from 8.75 percent to 12 percent. “We are not aware of any other state whose judges pay a higher contribution rate. Other state employees, by contrast, contribute 8.75 percent,” Berke said.
Judges also pay a co-share towards their health care benefits equal to 25 percent of the premium, according to Berke.
But some union leaders remain convinced that judges are receiving special treatment.
J. Michael Downey, the president of AFSCME Council 94, agreed with Keefe, noting that the labor group is currently negotiating a contract for the state workers it represents, replacing the one that expired last June. He said the state should show the same respect for janitors as it does to judges. “We would certainly hope that the state treats us as nicely as the judges,” Downey said.
Stephen Beale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bealenews
Top 30 Highest Paid Judges
Below are the top 30 highest paid judges, justices, and magistrates in the state judiciary. Judges and other top-earning members of the judiciary are listed from lowest to highest paid. Data includes both regular earnings as well as health care benefits. (The available records did not include the state contribution to judicial pensions.)
Note: Data was obtained from the State Controller’s Office. Pay and benefits are for the current fiscal year, which began in July. Data is current as of July 24, 2013. Salaries and benefits may be changed over the course of the year. In cases where compensation was the same, judges were listed in alphabetical order.
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